The Westmont women's basketball team at the NAIA national tournament. | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

The cold reality of March Madness is that almost everybody loses in the end. April 4 is the expiration date that will be defied by only one team in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament — the championship winner — and only 16 of 68 will last through this weekend (March 17-20). Duke’s Coach Mike Krzyzewski faces the probability that his estimable career will end in defeat, although it would be shocking if that happens Friday when his Blue Devils play their opener against Cal State Fullerton.

Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

Upsets do happen, and these are trying times for teams with high expectations. Westmont College has such a team in the NAIA women’s tournament. The Warriors won last year’s national championship at Sioux City, Iowa, and they were ranked No. 2 as they entered this year’s 64-team fray last weekend.

Instead of being shipped out of state as in past years, Westmont was selected to host the first two rounds in its corner of the bracket. The Warriors struggled a bit in their opener Friday against Westcliff, a first-time participant from Irvine, but they went on a big run in the second half to win comfortably, 62-47.

Then came the Saturday night second-rounder against the University of Science and Arts from Chickasha, Oklahoma. The visitors were named the Drovers — cowboys known for driving cattle and sheep to market — and they came into Murchison Gym with the intention of driving Westmont out of the tournament.

The Drovers made a statement at the outset, contesting every shot with forceful contact that shattered Westmont’s offensive rhythm. They built up a 12-4 lead, limiting the Warriors to four free throws, in the first eight minutes. Westmont clawed back in the second quarter and trailed at halftime, 24-23. USAO forged a 39-34 lead heading into the final quarter.

When the visitors went up 44-36 on a driving layup by Milagros Carrera, an aggressive guard from Lima, Peru, a feeling of trepidation pulsed through the Westmont crowd. With the clock flashing down to four minutes, the eight-point deficit was huge considering the grinding pace of the game.

Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

Yet there was no panic in the eyes of the Warriors during a timeout. “Do not even think about losing,” coach Kirsten Moore told them.

Seniors Iyree Jarrett, Stefanie Berberabe, Kaitlin Larson, and Gabriella Stoll exuded confidence. They all played key roles in the 2021 NAIA Championship that ended with a 72-61 victory over top-seeded Thomas More of Kentucky.

Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

“We do well when there’s pressure,” said Berberabe, a fearless 5′3″ guard. “We trust our coach and each other that if we do the work and put it all out on the court, we’re going to pull through.”

The comeback began when Jarrett, a two-time NAIA All-American, scored her first basket of the game on a driving layup. Junior Sydney Brown cut the margin to four points with another drive to the rim. Freshman sharpshooter Laila Saenz then made the biggest shot of her career, a three-pointer that shaved the difference to a point.

After the Drovers made a free throw to lead 47-45, it was Jarrett’s turn. The senior guard had gone 0-for-5 from three-point range, but when Larson passed out to her from the post, she did not hesitate to pull the trigger. Her shot ripped through the net, and Westmont led, 48-47.

“Keep shooting open shots,” Jarrett said. “Don’t get mental about it. Take the shot and get back on defense.”

The defense continued to get stops in the remaining minute. After Larson secured a held ball to earn a Westmont possession, the Drovers fouled the elusive Berberabe with 4.9 seconds on the clock. She went to the line and buried both free throws, giving her a team-high 18 points. The formidable Carrera (18 points, 16 rebounds) got off a potential tying three-pointer in the last second, but sophomore Destiny Okonkwo swatted it back at her. Several hundred fans exhaled as the final buzzer confirmed Westmont’s 50-47 victory.

“That was a hard way to win a ball game,” Moore said. “We missed a lot of shots. Credit USAO. They were so physical; they were a force every time we drove. I’m proud of my girls for sticking with it. This is a team that believes no matter how hard it is, they find a way to get it done.”

Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

The Warriors head to Sioux City for a Sweet 16 matchup on Friday, March 18, against Central Methodist (Mo.), a team that outscored Talladega (Ala.) 118-62 in a second-round game.

“It’s going to be and offense versus defense game,” Moore said. “We’ve got to defend. They’ve got a 6′5″ girl. They’re really dangerous.”

Moore, who also coached the Warriors to the national title in 2013, could achieve a career milestone of 400 wins (she’s 397-127) if they reach the championship game on March 22. If last Saturday’s game was any indication, it will take steely nerves to get there.

GAUCHO BLUES:  The curtain dropped earlier on UCSB than its men’s and women’s teams had hoped. Both of them failed to put away their opponents after leading much of the way in Big West Tournament games at The Dollar Loan Center in Henderson, Nev.

Junior guard Ajare Sanni gave UCSB a 64-60 lead over regular-season champion Long Beach State with 1:23 to play in the men’s semifinals. The Beach came back to tie the score and, after rebounding a Gaucho miss, called timeout with 1.3 seconds remaining. Receiving a deep inbounds pass over the tightly bunched Gaucho defense, Jadon Jones hit a 27-foot buzzer-beater for a 67-64 Beach triumph.

Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

“This year, if they could learn anything, it’s that sports are like life,” said Coach Joe Pasternack, whose Gauchos were hoping to make a repeat appearance in the NCAA tournament. “Everything isn’t smooth sailing.”

The Gauchos faced choppy waters early in the season, missing four home games because of COVID cancellations. They took a five-game winning streak into the tournament and knocked off UC Irvine, 78-69, as four-time All-Big West forward Amadou Sow (21 points, 16 rebounds) had one of his best games. They finished with a 17-11 record. Also receiving conference recognition were senior forward Miles Norris and dynamic guard Ajay Mitchell, the freshman of the year, who had two 30-point games.

It was feast or famine for UCSB’s women during a 15-12 season. They scored 29 points in the fourth quarter of a win at Cal State Northridge when they rallied from a 17-point second-half deficit. In the Big West Tournament, they poured in 23 points in the first quarter and then just 19 the rest of the way in a 46-42 loss to UC Riverside. “Mind-boggling,” Coach Bonnie Henrickson said of their riches-to-rags demise.

Danae Miller, who took the COVID bonus to be a five-year starter, finished her career on a high note. She scored 35 points in her home finale at the Thunderdome, leading the Gauchos to their first win over UC Davis in six years, 65-62.

Next year’s college rosters could be interesting, as many seniors at both Westmont and UCSB could choose to play an extra year.

CHERRY TOPPER:  Santa Barbara resident Andre Barbieri improved his snowboard slalom performance in the 2022 Paralympic Winter Games and was chosen as Brazil’s flag-bearer at last Sunday’s closing ceremony in Beijing. | Credit: Simo Vilhunen

GOOD AS GOLD:  Andre Barbieri, featured in the February 10 Independent, made the most of his appearance in the 2022 Paralympic Winter Games. One of the least experienced athletes in the snowboard races for above-the-knee amputees, he said, “Once I started competing, my level elevated to be closer to the top-level guys. I had a blast, and a lot of adrenaline during my races.” The 40-year-old Brazilian from Santa Barbara was especially happy after the banked slalom, as he improved from 15th place to 13th in the second of two runs. Barbieri was chosen to be Brazil’s flag-bearer at last Sunday’s closing ceremony in Beijing. He described that as “the cherry on top.”

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